Business & Economy

Pandemic DIY projects drive up lumber prices; building supplies run short

Construction underway on new homes at the Hillside at O’Brien Farm development in South Burlington on Monday, June 22, 2020. Costs of lumber and building supplies have shot up during the pandemic. Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Jason Larabee figured fewer customers would be headed to his Danville building supply shop when he reopened this spring, with the pandemic keeping people inside and sapping their funds.

Not so. 

“It got busy,” said Larabee, who’s on the board of the Vermont Retail Lumber Dealers Association. “And it got busier and busier and busier.”

Builders and suppliers — particularly of lumber — say demand for services has gone up more than expected this summer, so much so that prices for some goods have more than doubled and supplies are scarce. 

The trend stretches nationwide: CNBC reported this week that homebuilder confidence jumped to a record high this month, and the lumber prices have spiked since the start of the construction season. The National Association of Homebuilders says the price increase will add thousands of dollars to the cost of a typical new home.

Demand for treated wood — the kind often used for decks — has especially increased, and suppliers haven’t been able to keep pace.

“Pressure-treated lumber has become very scarce,” said Denis Borbeau, executive officer of the Vermont Builders and Remodelers Association.

Borbeau, who runs a Swanton homebuilding business, said that, to get what he needs for his projects, he’s had to order supplies piecemeal from several different lumber yards.

And with “pressure-treated deck boards, you can’t purchase them at all,” he said.

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Because the lumber industry didn’t see the coming demand, and because some mills and treatment plants shut down during the first wave of Covid-19, the shortage of supplies has led to higher prices.

From April to July, the federal government’s Producer Price Index for “treated wood and contract wood preserving” rose about 11%. 

In an average spring, Larabee would typically pay 80 cents per board foot for treated wood, using a common industry measurement.

Right now, that cost has more than doubled, to $1.80. “I’ve never seen it inflate to this,” he said. Whole cost hikes have forced him to raise his prices. 

Treated lumber prices have doubled, Borbeau said. And he cited another factor straining the supply chain: tariffs on Canadian lumber. The national homebuilders group says Canadian producers pay average tariffs of more than 20% on timber shipments to the U.S., translating to price bumps here. The group wants the Trump administration to renegotiate.

The lag time on orders has stretched out, Larabee said, because suppliers no longer have the products on hand.

“The last order (of treated wood), I think I waited almost five or six weeks to get because they just did not have the product sitting there,” he said.

Why are so many people seeking lumber right now?

“The general public, they haven’t been going on vacation; they haven’t been spending money on entertainment, going out to eat,” Borbeau said. “They’ve been staying home.”

So people are deciding to pick up do-it-yourself projects like decking. 

“I swear, everybody in the Northeast Kingdom has a new pressure-treated deck on or something,” Larabee said.

Builders busy

At the same time that people started buying more building supplies, they also started talking to and hiring builders.

“I have seen considerably more inquiries about coming here, wanting to build a home, and they all seem to want to do it ASAP,” said Donnie Blake, president of the Associated General Contractors of Vermont and owner of a contracting business in Morrisville.

Borbeau has noticed the same phenomena.

“I thought coming out of the Covid shutdown that things would be very slow, and the exact opposite occurred,” he said. “My phone is ringing off the hook. I can hardly keep up to new customer calls.”

Builders right now feel like “things are as good as we could ever expect,” he said.  

He and Blake attribute some of the increased interest to people in more urban areas looking to buy homes and property in Vermont — another pandemic-driven trend noted by Realtors.

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Justin Trombly

About Justin

Justin Trombly covers the Northeast Kingdom for VTDigger. Before coming to Vermont, he handled breaking news, wrote features and worked on investigations at the Tampa Bay Times, the largest newspaper in Florida. He grew up across Lake Champlain in upstate New York, where he worked for The Buffalo News, the Glens Falls Post-Star and the Plattsburgh Press Republican. He studied English and political science at the University of Rochester.

Email: [email protected]

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